Review: Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

Although audiences looking for a more faithful adaptation, without additions or subtractions, may feel Lyndsey Turner’s Hamlet isn’t complete or fulfilling, there are plenty of reasons why this Cumberbatch Hamlet hits the mark.

Benedict Cumberbatch himself is a likeable, accessible Hamlet, his madness arising from his grief. This is entirely clear, easily marked out from the moment he stands upon the dinner table and proclaims ‘O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt.’ At this point, the rest of the cast are obscured, slow motion shadows. We are enabled to focus on Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Hamlet’s inner thoughts, and provide some window into his isolation and his intentions.

Not only is he plausible, but Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is admirable. Unlike other Hamlets, he is not a misogynist in the way that Ken Branagh and Rory Kinnear have portrayed him; nor is he an egotist, like David Tennant’s or Jude Law’s Hamlets.

The brutal edit may be deemed inappropriate by purists, but it was imaginative and inspired, allowing the play to flow quickly, revealing exactly what the director and actor intended their characters to show without the archaic nuances of  17th century cultural mores.

Lyndsey Turner is unafraid of cutting lines that contradict the portrayal she intends in order to support the modern expectations of her audience. Ophelia does not sing songs about any sexual relationship she has had with Hamlet, ‘Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day ‘ not making the cut at all. Instead she sings a plaintive song, accompanying herself on the piano, seeming to only half-recognise Laertes as she does so. Her wasted wit is embodied by what looked like a patch of hair that had been ripped out, a semiotic with a little more indication of violent madness than the typical, predictable ripped dress.

Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is caring towards Ophelia. Her descent into madness is not catalysed by sexual rejection, but her own sensitive nature combined with the tragedy of her father’s violent death. Siân Brooke’s Ophelia’s delicacy is cleverly sign-posted: from very early, she exhibits tentative idiosyncratic gestures, which grow into the aching embodiment of mental breakdown following Polonius’ death.

“To be or not to be” was not misplaced at the beginning, as it had been earlier in the run, but the script around it was still subject to some major edits. It followed the scene where Hamlet teases Polonius: again, there was no malice, unlike Tennant or Kinnear who used their antic disposition to plague ‘these tedious old fools.’ Instead, clad in soldier uniform, Cumberbatch showed Hamlet’s failure to be the son his father wanted, and the depth of the misery this caused him. A brief banter with Polonius was followed by the famous soliloquy, showing the impact of his self loathing. Cumberbatch’s performance here was faultless, revealing Hamlet’s hamartia and his weakness to an audience sympathetic to his tears.

This Hamlet’s relationship with his mother (Anastasia Hille) is one of the most tender I have encountered. The rapport between them ably demonstrates Hamlet’s genuine affection for his mother as well as the scorn he feels about her “o’er hasty marriage” to his uncle. Both actors showed the difficulty of this dilemma. Their scene together in Gertrude’s chamber, often and easily overshadowed by more obvious dramatic moments of Hamlet’s killing of Polonius or the reappearance of the ghost of King Hamlet to “whet [his son’s] nearly blunted purpose,” was characterised by the symbiosis and evident understanding between Hamlet and his mother.

Ciarán Hinds’ Claudius was immediately redolent of a Pacino-esque patriarch (there being something in his voice and his bearing that certainly put me in mind of Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate, albeit with Hinds’ Claudius exhibiting more vulnerability and guilt), and there was something in his just slightly hammy portrayal of a controlling, calculating monarch which communicated the precariousness of his hold over his court. There was nothing one-dimensional, however, about Hinds’ Claudius. He carried much of that period in the early second half of the play from which Hamlet’s personality and development are absent. And there is a hint of contrition when he soliloquises his confession. He is an unsalvageable, twisted Claudius, but no pantomime villain.

Minor roles include shining performances by various individuals, including a loyal, supportive Horatio, devoid of the subservience from which insipid characterisations  so often suffer.

Even Rosencrantz was likeable, with his affable humour. The gravedigger’s chipper, cockney philosopher did not jar with the mood of rest of the play. The ending was swift. I recall Simon Russell-Beale taking nine minutes to die, but Cumberbatch’s exit was marked from the moment he realised he had been poisoned, and his credibility was better and more poignant for his quick end.

The play was not without imperfections and oddities: we saw Hamlet being playful with Ophelia in a scene change before she rushed to Polonius and told him she had ‘been so afrighted’, a moment which jarred with implausibility.

There were few of the gimmicks we are used to in modern Shakespeare interpretations, but the play did not suffer, as Turner’s directional ideas were fresh and Cumberbatch’s Hamlet honest and heroic, despite his tragic flaws of procrastination and hypersensitivity. We did not need Ophelia present and laid out downstage throughout the second half, an ingenious diretor’s addition to the Kinnear play; we did not need the t-shirt of bones Tennant wore to depict his closeness with the afterlife. Cumberbatch’s performance reminded us all the time of his aching solitude and his grief.

This is an unabashedly clever Hamlet, an intellectual, such that something is made of his mother’s plea that he ‘return… not to Wittenberg.’ But because Cumberbatch did not, as many previous Hamlet’s have done, cram the prince with arrogant egotism, the intelligence of his character was allowed to shine through as an entirely positive character trait, a rare – if not unique – feat among Hamlets I have seen.

He was a Hamlet to be admired; he evoked pathos and empathy and there was no badness in him, as any lines where we might lose sympathy had been cleverly cut. This Hamlet was indeed a ‘sweet prince’, and his energy and passion embodied and empowered a very impactful production.

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